Late in the 2011 season, then-Steelers linebacker James Harrison was suspended one game for his vicious hit on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy, who had scrambled out of the pocket and looked as if he would take off running -- right before he threw the ball. A millisecond later, Harrison leveled McCoy, concussing him in the process.
The NFL considered the hit illegal because even though McCoy had tucked the ball to run, and taken five steps before deciding to throw the ball, he was still considered a quarterback and afforded the rules that protect them. At no time during the play in question was McCoy, in the league's eyes (and according to the rules), considered a runner.
Two years later, and with the proliferation of the read option, the NFL has distributed a video explaining that read-option quarterbacks can be hit like runners, even if they don't have the ball.
Details via NFL Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino:
“He is still treated as a runner until he is clearly out of the play. The quarterback makes the pitch, he's still a runner -- he can be hit like a runner until he's clearly out of the play,” Blandino said (via PFT).
And plays designed to confuse the defense about who has the ball?
“The quarterback and the running back, they're both treated as runners," Blandino said. "We don't know who has the football, we don't know who's going to take it, so both players are treated as runners. … The basic concept is, the quarterback position is not defenseless throughout the down. It's the posture he presents that will dictate his protections.”
Still, that doesn't mean it's open season on quarterbacks.
“If the quarterback is out of the pocket, he's clearly out of the play, he cannot be unnecessarily contacted," Blandino said.
It'll be interesting to see how long until these rules are changed. Key injuries to big names have a way of swaying the competition committee.
For now, though, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and any other quarterback that has designs on being a read-option runner need to do so with the full knowledge that James Harrison can now legally unload on you.